The Real Reasons Clinton and Trump Lost America’s Trust

August 4, 2016, 7:57 PM UTC
This combination of file photos shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton(L)on June 15, 2016 and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on June 13, 2016. / AFP / dsk (Photo credit should read DSK/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by DSK—AFP via Getty Images

Joel Peterson is the author of The 10 Laws of Trust. He is the Robert Joss Professor of Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is also the Chairman of Jetblue Airways.

I have a question for my fellow business leaders: Would you hire either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to run your company?

In other words, do you really trust either of them?

Trust is the operating system of an open society, the source code of the American Dream. We’ve all observed that without trust, there is little collaboration, innovation or flexibility. And when trust breaks down, more time is spent on spin than on facts, more effort on politics than performance. And in places where trust is low, the most powerful people prevail, rather than the best ideas.

My work studying the dynamics of trust in high-performing teams tells me that low-trust relationships, formed out of expediency, lead inexorably to hard-to-reverse feedback loops rooted in the anger of betrayal.

In this angry election cycle, Americans have nominated two candidates to lead us whom many believe can’t be trusted. According to a CBS News poll last month, two-thirds of all voters don’t trust either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. A June Rasmussen poll found that 45% thought Trump was less honest even than most politicians – sadly, a low bar. And Clinton surpassed him with 46%.

The fact that we’ve nominated candidates whom many find untrustworthy tells us as much about our national mindset and about our disappointments, fears and wariness as it does about either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Maybe our age of hyper-information and high transparency is to blame, our Internet hive attentions dumbed down by social media slap-downs, fact-free debates, pundit-driven TV news, the growing popularity of fake news sites. No one is persuaded; but everyone has an opinion, staking out ill-informed sides on any issue, reflecting more heat than light. We prefer the visceral to the logical, the headline to the analysis, the short- to the long-term.

But building an enduring trust is rooted in facts, in truth-telling, in delivering on promises. Though trust is earned a conversation or transaction at a time, its durability flows from a lifetime of promises kept. In a fast-food-for-thought culture of instant gratification, many don’t recognize that real trust is derivative of intentionality, discipline, and effort – saying what you intend to do and working hard to do what you say.

All this means that we have work to do to rebuild trust in our leaders. That starts with understanding the nature of trust.

Trust has 3 forms: Mutual trust is when people depend on each other, as with interdependent partners. Representative trust is when people give up control to a specialist, such as to a doctor or elected official. But its third form is a pseudo-trust – the temporary trust of convenience, rooted in aligned self-interests. We’ve replaced representative trust with pseudo-trust – the kind that ends in betrayal as circumstances change (as they tend to in a dynamic world). Welcome to the world of politics, triangulation, temporary alliances – and the anger that comes from betrayal.

Clinton and Trump are both low-trust candidates. This leaves voters with the nagging sense that they’ll be betrayed – no matter whom they select.

So it’s not surprising that voters are reluctant to grant trust to those we believe will betray it. Some threaten not to vote; others ponder third- and fourth-party candidates as a protest; still others yearn for the option that only one state, Nevada, has on its ballot: None of the above.

As citizens, we owe each other more. The power that flows from trust is more enduring and adaptive than power rooted in statute. And just as mistrust is contagious, so is trust. As it makes its way into our communities and families and institutions, it gives hope, it fuels change. But trust can’t develop in a fact-free environment, without understanding policy trade-offs and without understanding a leader’s temperament, instincts and judgment under fire. High-trust should be the sine qua non of the man or woman we select to lead us.

The good news is that to trust, we don’t have to like either candidate. We don’t need them to agree with us on every issue or share our exact view of where the world’s headed. We do, however, need to trust them i) to make the trade-offs that national priorities require, ii) to hire great people around them, and iii) to be honest with us about economic and national security in a world withering for want of leadership.

Since this cycle may not provide us with an immediate solution to the breakdown of trust, we can at least require answers to these 3 concerns.

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